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The Spine Ride

The Story of The Continental Divide Ride

©By Sam Taylor

“Hmm, the air must be a bit thin here, no power--took forever to pass that pickup”, I thought, as we zoomed along the Wind River Range in western Wyoming, about 50 miles east of Yellowstone. I checked a convenient road sign. Sure enough: elevation 6500 feet. Then I checked a convenient speedometer. Sure enough: speed, 105 mph. Then I checked the convenient blue and red lights coming on ahead of me, then beside me, then behind me, then in my mirror. Sure enough: busted.

Thus did our little group make our acquaintance with Deputy Mike Crowder of the Fremont County (Wyoming) Sheriff’s Department.

Fortunately, or because of some bright blond hair, confused babble, and a wisely un-flashed roll of $100s, the Deputy let us off with a stern warning.

Wait. I think I’m getting ahead of myself.

A group of riders from the Montgomery Street Motorcycle Club of San Francisco had designed a tour of the West. The Spine Ride (so-called because it was designed to travel up the Continental Divide, the backbone of the continent) was to begin in a little town called Fallon, Nevada. Yes, technically it began somewhere in the SF Bay Area, but we wanted to have a clean, fresh, traffic-free start on Saturday morning, June 21st, the summer solstice. So we agreed to meet at the Econolodge in Fallon, some 280 miles away, which made for a lovely Friday evening Hell-ride through Sacramento rush hour. But that’s all behind us. I’m better now that the medication’s working. Thank you.

Beneath all the Aerostiches, Kalaharis, Shoeis, and Arais I counted 8 souls. Six rode on BMWs (an R1100RS, R1100GS (two-up), R1100RT, K100, and R100), two rode Hondas (a VFR and a PC 800). Six were men, two were women (no, there was no brand correlation). Every accessory known to BMW and Man was either in evidence or had been tried and discarded. We looked like a moving Competition Accessories catalog.

Our first night we dined heartily at a Mexican cantina across from the Econolodge (emphasis on the Econo), and left precisely at 6:00 am the next morning for Bryce Canyon.

Sidebar here: to this group’s undying credit, “Clutch’s Out at 6” really meant “Clutch’s Out at 5:59”.  As nominal rideleader (I had the maps), I tried to arrive on time each morning, and generally would be swinging a leg over my R11RS at the appointed hour, 6AM.  I would also pretend not to notice 7 helmeted faces impatiently astride their warmed-up bikes, in formation and ready to turn out of the parking lot. Tough crowd.

Pulling 90 or so out of Fallon, it didn’t take long to rack up our first casualty. Now, it’s not really my fault that at any speed north of 80, 1 headlight in my mirror looks like 7, and 7 look like 1, so I wasn’t particularly curious when Brother Stan pulled up along side and gestured at me. I figured he meant “let’s get going”, so I wicked it up. Then I noticed that there were no lights in my mirror and I figured I may have misinterpreted Stan. Sure enough. Friend Pat had had a mechanical failure several light-years back, and everyone but, er, ah, me had stopped for her. So Stan and I pulled over and waited for the verdict.

Pat had troubles with her carburetors. She decided to turn back 100 or so miles to Reno BMW for advice, and, with luck, repair. The harsh laws of the road must prevail, however. Leaving the wounded for dead, we proceeded on.

After a quick breakfast in Austin served by the former marketing director of The Limited (she explained she’d needed a change of lifestyle, a goal I can assure you she achieved), we continued our brisk pace along The Loneliest Road In America, US route 50.  Past Ely, we angled southeast into Utah. After one or two stretches of Death Valley-like heat and desolation, we eventually entered the Bryce Canyon area.

What a change. Suddenly, we were surrounded by red canyons of striated rock formations, with a crystal clear blue sky as backdrop. The sheer beauty caused us to drop speeds and casually wander into our destination of Tropic, Utah, about 4:30pm. It was bright and dry, but not stiflingly hot, and we had a few hours to relax, visit Bryce Canyon, nap, or all of the above.

We “dined” that evening at the better of the two choices, or so we were assured, which, being our second dinner as a group, continued a pattern borne from years of riding together. It goes like this:

  • WAITRESS: Would you like anything to drink? [many hands shoot into the air]
  • RIDER1: Can I see your wine list?
  • WAITRESS: Well, we have all three kinds.
  • RIDER2: I’ll take a beer.. What kind do you have?
  • WAITRESS: Uh, Budweiser, Miller Lite, and Coors.
  • RIDER3: We brought some wine with us. Is that OK? What’s corkage?
  • WAITRESS: What’s corkage?
  • RIDER4: That’s what he asked.
  • WAITRESS: Oh, I see, let me go get a corkscrew.
  • RIDER5: What kind of wine is your white wine?
  • WAITRESS: I don’t know.
  • RIDER6: I’ll have a Margarita
  • RIDER3: You realize that their Margaritas are made without booze.
  • RIDER6: Oh wait, I’ll have a Jack Daniel’s
  • WAITRESS: We only serve wine and beer here.
  • RIDER2: I guess I’ll have a Bud.
  • RIDER5: I’ll have the white wine.
  • RIDER2: Can I change that to a Miller Lite?
  • RIDER3: Can we go ahead and open this up?
  • WAITRESS: I’ll be right back.
  • RIDER1: I’ll have a Margarita
  • RIDER3: They make their Margaritas with guava juice, you know.
  • RIDER1: What? Oh. Waitress! Change that to a Scotch and soda!
  • WAITRESS (exiting): We only have beer and wine.
  • RIDER1: Only beer and wine? [WAITRESS returns with MANAGER]
  • MANAGER: I’m sorry, but did you buy that wine in Utah?
  • RIDER3: No, but he makes it.
  • MANAGER: What?
  • RIDER2: He makes it.
  • MANAGER: But did you buy it in Utah?
  • RIDER5: No, we brought it along.
  • MANAGER: Then I can’t open it. Not without a Utah sticker.
  • RIDER3: But he makes it
  • MANAGER: It needs a Utah sticker.
  • RIDER4: What kind of wine do you have?
  • MANAGER: Chablis, Burgundy, and Rosé.
  • RIDER4: I’ll have the Burgundy
  • RIDER1: I’ll have the Chablis
  • RIDER2: I’ll change my Miller Lite to the Burgundy
  • RIDER7: Can I have a Margarita?
  • Well, I think you get the idea. You ought to see what we do with the Mushroom Bacon Cheeseburger.

    Several hours later, having been served our drink order, someone said, “Do you smell gas?” Someone else said, “Yeah, I just noticed it”. Then we heard, “Hi, guys”.

    It’s Pat. Looking pretty much like you’d expect after 700 plus miles of hot desert riding, Pat had managed to get her bike fixed, turn back around, and catch up with the group only about 5 hours late. Her determination and perseverance was phenomenal. So was the odor. For the rest of the trip, she was destined to smell like Chevron 89 (with Techroline) due to leaky carbs and absorbent boots. But she made it all the way.

    The next day was one of the best riding days a motorcyclist can have. If you’ve ridden Utah State 12, you know what I mean. Twisting through canyons, traversing knife-edge rims, and curving through green fields, rocky deserts, and stands of quaking aspen, this road has it all, except traffic, tar strips, or constabulary. Someone pinch me, I must still be dreaming.

    Though late in the day, we opted for a bonus loop through Monument Valley and Four Corners, stopping for the obligatory photo-op and rolling into Durango, Colorado, a wee bit late (about 6pm).  Landing just outside of town at a Super-8, we hired a van to drive us to dinner (after the customary cocktail hour) and enjoyed a late snack of steak, meat, beef, ribs, beer, wine, and more beef. This, coupled with our traditional morning repast of 3-egg omelets smothered in cheese (with biscuits and gravy on the side), made subsequent and frequent small-talk about spending $1000 for a 2-pound-lighter exhaust system seem a bit moot.

    We took an extra day in Durango so we could rest. Stan, John, and Jim “rested” by going to Telluride, and (in Jim’s case), Mesa Verde National Park. The boys reported that there was a music festival just ending in Telluride, and that all the marijuana smoke trapped at 8000 feet in a box canyon can really improve your riding style, man, not that they need improvement, man. They returned late but happy, oh wow, man.

    Meanwhile, the others poked around Durango, a nice town of about 10,000 people.  I ate breakfast at the Durango Diner.  While sitting at the counter sipping my coffee, I was struck by one of those great coincidences in life.  I was reading in that very morning's USA Today that the Durango Diner had been chosen as one of the country’s 10 best diners.  There it was in black and white, and there I was in flesh and blood, and the McNewspaper was accurate in its review.  I was so in.

    Later, I got a haircut, bought some supplies, drank a beer. Another perfect day.

    For sheer thrills, the next morning’s ride may have been tops of the trip. First, at dawn’s early light, we climbed over several 11,000 foot passes into the little mining town of Ouray for breakfast. Then we sped north, east, and up the south rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Crossing the Gunnison, we zigged west, then north again, for spectacular straight-down views of the north rim. I think in all the excitement lunch was relegated to snacks at various gas stations. Got to love that teriyaki beef jerky and Diet Pepsi. Traveling generally north-northeast, we headed over more passes, getting closer and closer to the actual Continental Divide. It was beautiful, brisk, alpine riding.

    We broke the No Interstates rule by traveling along I-70 (the last piece to be completed, years ago), which, as superslabs go, is pretty interesting.  The road tracks the Colorado River through deep gorges, the river powerful and at times barely contained alongside. We must have target-fixated on the river, because at some point we followed the Colorado and left the superslab behind. In fact, we left all the slab behind, as well. Ah, sweet, sweet dirt.

    Thirty-five miles or so of hardpack and gravel through Burns, Colorado only took us an hour, and afforded us an opportunity to reflect on the past, slower times, and personal sphincter control. We eventually arrived in Steamboat Springs tired, hungry, and--did I mention tired?--ready to call it a day.

    Meanwhile, a latecomer to our tour, riding a BMW R1100GS, was waiting for us at our intended destination of Rock Springs, Wyoming--about 200 miles west.  Reportedly, he had prepared quite a welcoming feast in his motel room (chips, dip, beer, and pretzels). Unfortunately, it would have to wait.  Friend Lyman got to have the whole town to himself that night, and we heard he really whooped it up with all the new friends he made, what with the free beers and all.

    Back in Steamboat Springs, we relaxed.  After a nice meal at a local brasserie, Jim, JT, Pat, and I went out on the town and made loads of fun at Lyman’s expense, as we were well behind his back, 200 miles away. Actually, we were feeling a bit guilty for having missed him and vowed to catch up the next day.

    That we missed Rock Springs was fortunate, actually.  It allowed us to angle up towards Jackson Hole after a very brisk morning ride over the Spine (the first of many times) and into Walden, Colorado for breakfast at the Coffee Pot. Here’s a place you must visit. It’s a cafe. It’s a used bookstore (with an excellent collection of 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s paperbacks, I must say). It’s a curio shop, focusing as you might expect on Coffee Pots. The proprietress told us a long, rambling, but strangely believable tale about her meeting with Malcolm Forbes and his leaving her money for a boob job in his will. I know it sounds crazy now but we took a vote and decided we all took her at her word. I also noticed she was eyeing one of our silver-maned riders carefully, her hand draped across the nape of his neck, for what reason I could not surmise.

    Leaving Colorado, we headed with haste across the rising plains of Wyoming, not stopping until requested to do so by Deputy Crowder. After that polite exchange, we lunched al fresco at the Old Yellowstone Garage. From there, it was a short but spectacular jaunt over to the Grand Tetons. Man, get a load of those Tetons! For my money, they have it all over Yellowstone, perhaps unless you have the time to explore the back country of the latter. Anyway, we landed in Jackson, Wyoming, for another 2 night stay.

    Being basically slug-like, I hung around Jackson the next day save for a helmetless tour of those marvelous Tetons. The more intrepid of the group toured Yellowstone, with Mack continuing into Cody, Wyoming for a look at the gun museum.  I was far too busy to be bothered with motorcycling that day, taking a short, high altitude run in the National Elk preserve and then chatting up the help at the Snake River Brewery.

    We dined elegantly that evening and decided to go on a diet the next day. Well, the group did get smaller, in that two riders stayed behind. Another member of our Club was scheduled to fly in and ride Brother John’s RT home, as he had business in Jackson and would fly home later.  Stan had agreed to join the pinch hitter-rider as escort. So now we were 7.

    After a perfectly gorgeous ride along the Idaho side of the Tetons, we headed west.  We occasionally encountered road construction, often the kind that required 15 to 20 minute waits behind Women with Signs and Walkie-Talkies. Once, while Jim wandered off into the Idaho scrub to see a man about a horse, the Sign Lady said casually, “you know, there're lots of rattlesnakes in there”. Frantic yelling and pleading did no good, as Jim still had his earplugs in and his helmet on (when you gottta go, you gotta go). So the rest of stood around wondering who'd get to apply the traditional snakebite remedy to Jim, and any parts of his that got bit.

    We pulled into Ketchum, Idaho (home of Sun Valley), that night and decided to take it easy. We ordered a pizza which only took 2 hours to arrive. When asked what took so long, the delivery boy said simply it was because he’d been drinking. Good Idaho honesty. We liked that.

    Bidding adieu to Tony, Lydia, and Lyman, who needed to shoot back home, Mack, Jim, Pat, and I proceed on. And then there were four.

    We headed up over Galena Summit down into the Salmon River valley.  What a ride.  I don’t want to say it too loudly, but I missed the rest of the group and they missed a beautiful day. Again, sparse traffic, great road surfaces, and incredible scenery made for 100% pure biking fun.  Plus, if you’re a bit of a history buff like me, you’ve got to love the terrain, crossing as you do the paths of Lewis and Clark, the pioneers of the Oregon Trail, the Nez Perce, and others--all well signed a documented along the way.

    The group pulled in relatively early to Missoula, Montana, that afternoon, and enjoyed our riverfront rooms along the Clarks Fork River. After a few cold ones at the local brewpub, we retired to Casa Pablo’s for a rowdy good time. Jim, Pat and I hung around a bit to view the local fauna at the connecting watering hole. Someone please whistle the “Love Theme From Deliverance”, will you? It will set the tone. Since it stayed light past 10:30, we felt safe, though.  Good little motorcyclists that we were, we found ourselves beddie-bye by 11:00.

    Rain. For the first time on the trip, we hit weather the next day. Actually, we sort of enjoyed it, since it wasn’t particularly driving nor did it slow us down much. It made riding the Lolo Pass a bit slower than it might have otherwise, but, hey, who cares? Riding down the west side of the Bitterroots, first along the Lochsa then the Clearwater Rivers, is one of the West’s great rides. And to our inexpressible joy, we saw clear skies ahead once we pulled into Western Idaho.

    Hell’s Canyon. I’d heard about it. Seen it on maps. Always wondered why there were no roads leading to it. Then we saw why.

    The canyon is the deepest gorge in the continent, over 8400 feet from river to peak. Formed by the Snake River it’s virtually inaccessible except at either end, and then only by boat. There was this one little teeny-weeny dirt road, however....

    Fueled only by the complimentary cookies from the previous night’s hotel, Pat and I took a good 2 and a half hours to wind our way up, down, up, down, and up and down and around, braving dirt, hairpins, cattle, a busload of boaters, and various other hazards to get to the Snake. Well, well worth it. Vistas you would not believe, colors and hues I’ve never seen in landscapes. Once again, dirt roads rule.

    That night we obtained lodging in Cambridge, ID. In what was surely the most “charming” arrangement we had on the trip, we rented rooms from a man and his wife who were running the local Inn and Coffee Bar. The proprietor immediately saw to it that we had a couple of cold beers in our hands (haven’t had Schaefer Lite in quite a while, but it sure tasted good that day). We sat and talked and made some friends with other guests: a couple, rabid Packers fans from Green Bay, traveling the country trying to visit all 50 states, and two men from Boise visiting Cambridge to videotape cows for the next auction on the Cattle Channel (available by satellite). I am not making this up. Who says there’s a lack of meaningful content on the air?

    That night we moseyed on in to the local bar for a game or two of billiards. Little did we know that Jim--or as we now call him, “Big Boy”-- had apparently spent his formative years hanging around pool halls. There we found, firmly planted on a bar stool, our proprietor and other colorful local celebrities, including one amply endowed (save for teeth) young lady, er, woman, who took a bit of a fancy to Jim’s biceps. This is really all I can say because I’m trying to sell this script to the Family Channel (although I may also option it to the Cattle Channel).

    Apparently the experience somehow reminded Jim of home and hearth, so the next morning, he took off for San Francisco. And then there were three.

    We proceeded on. First, we checked out the upriver end of Hell’s Canyon, then bee-lined across Eastern Oregon, slicing through the Wallawas (home of the Nez Perce) and then down to Bend, where we again encountered rain.  Mack, Pat, and I holed up in Crescent, Oregon, and actually had a pleasant evening, first eating Fritos hors d'oeuvres in our room, then enjoying a dining experience accompanied by a kraft of wine, as the waitress wrote it on the check.  Whatever a kraft was,  it didn't require the Utah sticker.

    Mack bid farewell the next morning and meandered down to Redding to see his kids. And then there were two.

    Pat and I voyaged over Crater Lake (8 feet of snow!), down the Rogue River, through Grant’s Pass, Oregon and down 101 into California. Although this is surely one of the most beautiful ways to enter the Bear Flag Republic, I always get a tad depressed when I cross our border. You pass about 10 signs telling you what you cannot do, what the fine will be if you do it, and all the other rules and regulations. Who needs them? Open up the door!

    We only made it as far as Garberville, California that night, a town nestled just south of the Avenue of the Giants. The term “laid back” would make Garberville seem too frenetic. It’s a nice spot, but the call of home was strong. Up and out the next day, and then I was one.

    Yes, the Spine Ride was over. In roughly 10 days, we’d covered about 4300 miles, some more, some less. Ridden through 8 states. Crossed the Continental Divide 4 times (at least). Eaten much roadfood. Partied every night. Met a few characters, even a few outside our own group. What do we have to look forward to now?

    Perhaps doing it the other way around?

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